TRIST’s Midsummer Makes Providence Part of the Action

tristThe thrill of live theater lies in the implied promise that something could go wrong at any moment. A forgotten line, a failed prop, a disruptive audience member – anything can and often does happen in a live setting that cannot be accounted for in rehearsals. Audiences adore watching actors navigate the shaky precipice of spontaneous reaction. Some performers, cool and professional, muster on and cover skillfully, quickly patching the hole in the fourth wall. Others incorporate the unexpected and break character for a moment, sharing the audience’s reaction and bringing us all into the scene together. Classic live TV comedies used to bank on these moments (think Harvey Korman in “The Carol Burnett Show”) and The Gamm built such a “spontaneous” character break into last year’s Hamlet, suggesting that Sam Babbitt had gone up on his lines in order to provoke a hearty response upon “recovery.” Audiences adore failure, or, more specifically, they adore the ability of a talented performer to recover from failure. Or not.

So, at its essence, live performance promises skilled and practiced resistance to potential disaster. The less controlled the environment, the more probability that an audience will witness such an event. Thus the enduring popularity of Shakespeare in the park. Any park. Anywhere. As stuffy and lofty as we like to think of it, Shakespeare’s work was designed with one eye (and two fingers) to the rabble rousers down front. The potty humor and innuendo lends itself easily to spontaneous interaction, but the trick is that one can’t simply ad-lib without going out of verse. And, even in the frothiest of the Shakespearean comedies, such as TRIST’s current Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are moments of delicate reflection that could be shattered with one cell phone … or a train. Potential disaster compounded.

So, is the promise of iambic anarchy the only reason to witness Bob Colonna’s latest production at the Roger Williams National Memorial downtown? Certainly not, but it doesn’t hurt. For Colonna, Midsummer is personal, an affectionate revisiting of the play in which he made his first professional appearance at the Old Globe in San Diego (as Snug the Lion) and many subsequent retellings in increasingly interesting spaces, including one on a boat. The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre, which Colonna founded in 1971, has used this particular park to great success in the past and has come to expect the unexpected. Colonna’s vision this time around puts the familiar Midsummer characters in complete harmony with their surroundings. Rather than asking the audience to suspend disbelief that Oberon, the Fairy King, has come down from the ether and we’re not supposed to be within spitting distance of the Statehouse, we’re treated to a rather familiar gaggle of locals and a nod to Brown University and the Occupy movement just a few paces down the street. Passersby often end up unwittingly interacting with the players. Chris Ferreira’s Oberon looks convincingly homeless and is sometimes treated as such by spectators. Candice Sampson’s meter maid appearance has prompted some unscripted desperation from hapless motorists hoping to avoid a ticket. Motorcycles become an acknowledged part of the soundscape and errant skateboarders sometimes become unwitting chorus members.


None of which means that this production of Midsummer is anything less than skillfully acted and presented. A large and talented cast comprising RI theater veterans and young newcomers alike is aided by some expert craftsmanship by puppeteer Marc Kohler, whose design for the donkey head that poor Bottom must comically inhabit is not a throwaway costume piece resurrected from a high school drama collection. This piece is a grotesque LED-driven monstrosity that becomes a character in its own right. Colonna and TRIST have developed a smart and acutely self-aware version of Midsummer Night’s Dream that is not only free to attend, but a chance to experience predictable unpredictability and tap into what makes RI theater, in all its variety, such a treasure.

TRIST presents a very Providence version of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream through June 16. Every Sunday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, weather permitting.

Location: Roger Williams National Memorial, 282 North Main Street, Providence, RI 02903

Times: 8 pm

Admission: Free